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A privileged life, a giving one

As poisons drip into her bloodstream to fight her cancer, Celma Mastry sits comfortably inside Gulfcoast Oncology Associates at St. Anthony's Hospital. The equipment is different, but the space resembles a modest hair salon, with evenly spaced chairs and a few magazines.

Ever elegant, Mrs. Mastry wears high-heeled Kate Spade sandals and a St. John knit dress. Her nails are manicured, her makeup flawless. She has made some stylistic concessions; these days, she invariably chooses collared dresses that accommodate her chemotherapy port.

The treatment will knock her back for a few days. It always does. Morning will be bad. Afternoon will be better. And she will put on a good public face. As one of the city's leading benefactors, she always has.

In fact, she has added one more charity to her lengthy list of worthy causes: the Celma Mastry Ovarian Cancer Foundation, which she established with other members of her family and friends, including medical professionals.

Although her appearances have been few this year, no benefit goes by without a mention of Celma Mastry and inquiries about her health.

The cancer long ago spread from her ovaries to her lungs. She is terminal, living on borrowed time. Her son Micheal, a doctor who specializes in obstetrics and gynecology, checks on her every day, and her daughters take turns staying with her overnight.

Still, her quiet energy shows.

On Aug. 16, at a birthday party in her honor at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, Mrs. Mastry danced with Dr. Joe Pilkington, her close friend and escort, in high heels. "It really pleased my doctors," she said.

Her age?

Every inch the lady, she said: "That I don't tell people."

In the early 1990s, newly widowed, Mrs. Mastry emerged as one of the city's most visible philanthropists after having spent years as a traditional wife and mother.

In another time and place, she was a bride at 16.

She grew up in a medical family that stressed elegance and appropriate dress. If television's June Cleaver and Donna Reed were fictional 1960s characters in their dress pumps and pearls, Mrs. Mastry was the real thing.

"I just put on an apron," she said matter-of-factly.

Celma Nini was born in Brazil, daughter of Adib and Sadie. When she was very young, the family moved to Lebanon to be near her father's family. Her mother died of typhoid fever when Celma was 3.

She attended French boarding schools in Lebanon. Already proficient in Arabic, she soon learned French.

Adib Nini, a dentist, moved the family to Curacao in 1940. Celma learned Spanish and English.

By the time she was in her teens, she had a serious suitor.

D. Eugene Mastry's father, Constantine, and Celma Nini's father, Adib, were distant relatives. Young Gene lived in St. Petersburg and was in the process of moving to Belize (then British Honduras), where his parents had businesses. He visited the family over time, and eventually he asked Dr. Nini for permission to marry Celma. Gene was 24. Celma was 15.

Her wedding dress, chosen by Julia Mastry, her future mother-in-law, was brought by boat to Belize from St. Petersburg. It was an arranged marriage.

"I wouldn't have been allowed to date anyway," Mrs. Mastry said recently.

Julie (Janssen), Claudette (Carlan) and Micheal were born at home in Belize.

"Gene wanted to be close to his parents in St. Petersburg," Mrs. Mastry said, and he sold the family industries _ in cigarettes, furniture, jalousie windows, laundry soap, boat building and logging. In 1961, he moved the family to St. Petersburg, where he owned Mastry Marine and Industrial Supply Co.

He and Mrs. Mastry had five other children: Adib, Constantine, Richard and Celmita, all born at Mound Park Hospital, now Bayfront Medical Center, and Rosalie (Tamney), whom they adopted from Belize.

In family life, Mrs. Mastry said, "We stuck together and never disagreed." But there were gentle influences. "I was a little more sheltered," she said. Gene was more restrictive.

As a young wife and mother, Celma Mastry didn't drive. There was no need. "We had chauffeurs and servants."

Her drivers included her children. In 1969, as Claudette prepared to move to Gainesville to attend the University of Florida, Gene Mastry made his wife an offer she couldn't refuse: If she learned to drive, she could have any car she wanted.

"I really hated it," Mrs. Mastry said. "But I was forced."

Her first automobiles were Lincoln Continentals. Later, she graduated to Rolls-Royce and Mercedes.

Even so, says Claudette Carlan, "She's never filled her own car with gas."

Celma wore slacks on the family yacht, and when aerobics became de rigueur, she wore shorts.

One of Mrs. Mastry's grandsons regarded her, awestruck: "Tita doesn't sweat," he said, using the Arabic word that means "my grandmother."

"My husband was completely the opposite of me," Mrs. Mastry said. "He was very casual."

As the Mastrys' children grew older, the couple became more active in charities. The house they built in 1985 on Park Street N was modeled after their home in Belize and had views of both the Gulf of Mexico and downtown St. Petersburg. Its public rooms frequently were opened to community groups.

When Gene Mastry died in January 1991, they had been married for 47 years.

"I was devastated when I lost him," Mrs. Mastry said. "He was a great man."

Friends and her children encouraged her to increase her involvement in charity work.

"I felt that I learned a lot," she said. "I learned to speak out a little more. I learned to ask for money."

Among the many organizations that have benefited from Mrs. Mastry's generosity are the Queen's Court; St. Petersburg Museum of History; American Cancer Society; Boley Angels; American Lung Association; the Florida Orchestra Guild; Infinity, the League to Aid Abused Children and Adults; St. Anthony's Hospital Auxiliary; Pinellas Association for Retarded Children; Alpha, A Beginning; Foundation Fighting Blindness; Suncoasters; Bayfront Medical Center Foundation; and the Museum of Fine Arts.

The Celma Mastry Ovarian Cancer foundation was established to help other women who have the disease, to promote research and to help in prevention and early detection.

The foundation was the beneficiary of the 15th annual Old Salts Ladies Fishing Tournament in June. Another fundraiser, "Couture for a Cure," a fashion gala at the Coliseum, is scheduled Friday evening.

Mrs. Mastry already has selected what she plans to wear to the event.

In April 2001, Celma Mastry was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer, which means that it had spread outside her abdomen. The cancer had metastasized to her lungs, doctors said, and was inoperable. They predicted that she would live only six more months.

Her son Dr. Micheal Mastry did his residency at Tampa General Hospital with Dr. John Kavanaugh, now an ovarian cancer specialist at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas in Houston. Through their professional connections, Mrs. Mastry has undergone some experimental treatments in Texas.

She and her family established the foundation, Mrs. Mastry said, because she has had the means to explore various treatments for her illness.

Money raised through the nonprofit organization will help pay for second opinions for those who can't afford them and will go toward early detection of the disease.

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.

COUTURE FOR A CURE: Benefits Celma Mastry Ovarian Cancer Foundation. 7-10 p.m. Friday. Coliseum, 535 Fourth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. $150. 894-6088; 527-2733.